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Yemen Bombed to Brink of Famine as U.S.-Backed Saudi Coalition Targets Food Supplies

Web ExclusiveDecember 15, 2017
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We continue our interview with Iona Craig, award-winning journalist and former Yemen correspondent for The Times of London, about the escalating humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led bombing campaign has devastated Yemen’s health, water, sanitation systems, sparking a massive cholera epidemic. The Saudi-imposed blockade has prevented critical food, water, medicine and aid from reaching civilians. The United Nations has warned that over 8 million people are “a step away from famine.” Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition has escalated its bombing campaign in recent days, following the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Days before his death, the longtime leader switched sides in the ongoing war and threw his support behind the Saudi-led coalition. He was then killed by the Houthis.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue with Part 2 of our interview on the escalating humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led bombing campaign has devastated Yemen’s health, water, sanitation systems, sparking a massive cholera epidemic. The Saudi-imposed blockade has prevented critical food, water, medicine and aid from reaching civilians. The United Nations has warned that over 8 million people are, quote, “a step away from famine.”

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition has escalated its bombing campaign in recent days, following the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Days before his death, the longtime leader switched sides in the ongoing war and threw his support behind the Saudi-led coalition. He was then killed by the Houthis.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re continuing with Iona Craig, who’s now in London. She’s a journalist who was based in Sana’a from 2010 to 2015 as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. But she’s written a new piece for The Guardian, which is headlined “Bombed into famine: how Saudi air campaign targets Yemen’s food supplies.” Iona Craig was awarded the 2016 Orwell Prize for her reporting on Yemen.

Iona Craig, welcome back to Democracy Now! In Part 2 of our discussion, what do you think is being missed by the world in understanding what’s being taken place in Yemen right now?

IONA CRAIG: I think it’s really how man-made the humanitarian crisis is, the Saudi coalition’s policy of not just blockading the country and restricting food imports—and Yemen imports 90 percent of its food in peace time—but it’s also the bombing campaign, that I mentioned in that report for The Guardian, that has been used to systematically target Yemenis’ ability to grow their own food or supply food for themselves. So, there is a clear pattern of a strategy to bomb farmland, to target the areas where farmers are trying to grow food, and, again, as well, targeting fishermen, where people have become increasingly reliant on, you know, fish and fishermen’s supplies to feed themselves. And so, in that report, I spoke to fishermen on the Red Sea coast in Hodeidah, the head of the fishermen’s union, and to farmers. And there has also been academic research done on the data of the airstrike campaign since 2015 that does show a pattern of the Saudi coalition apparently targeting Yemen’s food supplies, its own farmers and fishermen, in order to prevent them from being able to provide food for themselves, in addition to this blockade. So this is what is so largely responsible for the humanitarian crisis that we’re seeing now, with more than 8 million people facing famine, with hundreds of thousands of children now starving to death. And this has been a policy of the Saudi coalition, which is, of course, backed by Western nations, including the U.S. And so, they are complicit in that. And it’s mass starvation of 27 million people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to a first-person account by a young woman living in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. The 26-year-old goes by the pseudonym “Salma” to protect her identity, for fear for her safety. She spoke to PRI, The World, last week.

SALMA: We’re just staying inside our houses, because you don’t know if the airstrike’s going to come or, like, Houthi is going to hit. It’s like it’s safer for you and your family to stay close to your house. Since 2011, we have this kind of ugly experience of lockdown in our houses for days and days. But this one is different. This one, it’s like most of the people, they’re just like—they are sad. Really sad. Even myself. I have like—since I was student, I have issues like with the old regime and, you know, the troubles in education and everything. But when Ali Saleh’s got killed, I cried. Most of the people really cried, men and women. They feel like, you know, this man has been our leader for almost—over 35 years. I am 26. I was born, and he’s still—like, you know, he was the president, until I finished the school, and he’s still the president. We always look up to him, and he’s our father, for my generation. But now, the thing that I noticed, and it’s—I don’t know—hurt me inside, for real, it’s like people—like, I don’t know—they lost hope. Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death breaks every single one in the country, because they think there is no protection anymore.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s a young woman who goes by the name “Salma,” a 26-year-old, speaking from Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, speaking, of course, about former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. So, Iona, could you respond to what she said, in particular that his death, Saleh’s death, “breaks every single one in the country, because they think there is no protection anymore”?

IONA CRAIG: I think everybody in Yemen, even those who hated Ali Abdullah Saleh, were shocked when he died, that it had happened at all, but also the way in which he died. I’m not sure everybody would hold that same voice. There are people, particularly in southern Yemen, who were very pleased to see Ali Abdullah Saleh go.

But I think everybody now—there is mass uncertainty of what happens next. That’s everybody’s question, is: What happens now that Ali Abdullah Saleh is dead? And his political party appears to be crumbling, those who were still loyal to him, as well. And I think, particularly in Sana’a, people, over the last 10 days, are incredibly scared.

Trying to communicate with people there is very difficult. After Saleh’s death, the Houthis cracked down on the internet. It’s not possible to access social media—Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp—without a VPN. And so, people’s ability to communicate with the outside world has been silenced. And even when you do—when you are able to communicate with people, they’re very scared. They don’t want to talk about politics. They don’t want to tell you about what’s going on, because they fear that there will be reprisals and that the Houthis are going to be cracking down on anybody who shows still loyalty to Ali Abdullah Saleh.

And there has been a lot of talk of detentions in Sana’a over the last 10 days, since Saleh died, but it’s unclear how many people have effectively disappeared into the prisons in Sana’a and how bad that crackdown is, because getting information out of Sana’a is so difficult because of the restrictions the Houthis have placed on internet access over the last 10 days. So, yes, people there are incredibly, incredibly scared and, you know, sort of holding their breath, really, of what’s going to happen next in Yemen, after Saleh’s death.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Iona, could you talk about, speaking of the Houthis, the fact that now the Trump administration says that they’re going to share proof that Iran is arming the Houthi rebels? What are the implications of that? And why is the Trump administration making this claim now?

IONA CRAIG: Yeah, I think the most important of that is why. Why is the White House going to be showing this evidence? Why is Saudi Arabia not showing that evidence, or even the Yemeni government showing that evidence? And I think the concern is about the answer to that question. Is this going to be—is this rhetoric and this narrative going to be used as some form of pretext for more U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen to support any ground operations by the Saudi-led coalition?

There have been movements, since Saleh’s death, on the Red Sea coast towards Hodeidah. A grand operation against Hodeidah port had been talked about for more than a year, but under the previous U.S. administration, they had advised the Saudi-led coalition against that. And so, the concern is that this kind of rhetoric coming out of the White House may be used as some form of way to support the coalition in any upcoming ground offensive and to increase the U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen.

And, of course, that then brings the prospect of escalation, because it’s highly likely, if that did happen, that Iran would retaliate. They may not retaliate in Yemen. They could retaliate in Syria or Iran. And that, of course, brings the prospect of an almost proxy conflict then between the U.S. and Iran.

So it’s incredibly dangerous. And I think the timing of it now is also—you know, it’s dangerous for Yemen, in the sense that the aid agencies have warned, for a long time now, about the dangers of pushing militarily on Hodeidah, because they rely so heavily on the port to bring in aid to Yemenis at the moment, but the consequences could be far-reaching, you know, beyond the borders of Yemen and for the rest of the region, if this is going to be now used as some form of narrative for more U.S. involvement in targeting the Houthis in Yemen, who Saudi Arabia, of course, see very much as a proxy for Iran.

It certainly seems to be that the Houthis have increased their capabilities on the weapons side. The Yemeni arsenal didn’t contain ballistic missiles that could reach as far as Riyadh before the war. And all the indications are that they’ve received training and maybe military parts, as well, that have been shipped into or smuggled into Yemen in order for them to be able to modify the ballistic missiles that they did have, in order to fire them into Riyadh and, as they claim, as well, the Houthis have claimed, to fire towards the UAE, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig—

IONA CRAIG: So, yes, this kind of talk, it really points towards escalation, which could be incredibly dangerous for the region as a whole.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have 30 seconds, and Jared Kushner recently went, again, meeting with his dear friend in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. Thomas Friedman hailed him as a visionary, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. His role in what’s happening here, and what you feel the U.S. should be doing right now?

IONA CRAIG: I think the problem is now, it’s with the U.S. cozying up more to Saudi Arabia, being very much on side with the Saudi coalition, whilst being more hostile towards Iran, really means that the—getting some kind of dialogue going on the war on Yemen to bring an end to the conflict is less and less likely. And actually, U.S. actions at the moment are pointing towards a sort of never-ending conflict. Trying to find an end to the conflict becomes more difficult, and the U.S. is actually making it more difficult by this kind of relationship, very close relationship, with Saudi Arabia, whilst being much more aggressive in their rhetoric towards Iran.

And that has a direct consequence on the civilian population now, who are literally starving to death in Yemen. And the U.S. policies at the moment and their activities are making that worse for Yemenis on the ground, and will do, if they can’t get to the point of some form of political discussion or a ceasefire to at least bring a halt to hostilities in some way. And so, yes, the U.S. is actually making the situation worse in Yemen rather than better.

AMY GOODMAN: And the effect of cholera? How many people have cholera? And how is that affected by the Saudi—U.S.-backed Saudi bombing of Yemen?

IONA CRAIG: Well, the issue with cholera, actually, the numbers were improving, although they’re expected to reach a million by the end of this year, with more than 2,000 people now having died from the disease. The bombing of the infrastructure, of water supplies, has had an impact on that—on hospitals, the blockading of medical supplies, bringing them into the country, the blockading of water purification into the country. The aid agencies have been bringing in supplies for that. That all has an impact on the ability to help the cholera situation in Yemen.

But now you’re seeing outbreak of more disease. We’re hearing in the last few days about diphtheria in Yemen, which hadn’t been recorded for decades in the country. And this is all because less than 50 percent of the country’s medical facilities are now operating. And those that are operating, under massive strain, they can’t get the supplies that they need. And the aid agencies can’t bring in the help that they need to for those kind of situations.

So, yes, it’s not just hunger. It’s disease. And I think that’s not just going to be restricted to cholera now, whilst the hospitals and medical centers in Yemen struggle to cope with, basically, the situation that they’re in because of the conflict, because of the hospitals that have been bombed, because of medical facilities that have been put out of action because of the war. The healthcare system is basically collapsing in Yemen at the moment. And there’s no way to rectify that if aid agencies can’t get help in to them at the moment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Iona, could you also explain, I mean, as far as this bombing campaign goes, who are the principal countries—I mean, the U.S. and the U.K.—who are supplying arms to Saudi Arabia, and why there isn’t more pressure on them, given the situation in Yemen, to cease all sales, or at least to limit them?

IONA CRAIG: Right. I mean, obviously, the primary weapon sales are coming—or weapon arms sales are coming from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia. Britain is also involved. Other European countries are also involved. Canada is also involved. I think it’s very lucrative business for the U.S. and the U.K. And particularly in the U.K., as well, it’s not just weapon sales, it’s other investments from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries who are part of the coalition, particularly in the Brexit era, when the British government is going to be looking beyond Europe now for, you know, more investment in the country. So, it’s about maintaining relationships that have a financial interest, ultimately.

And this has gone on despite clear evidence of violations of international humanitarian law that I’ve seen on the ground in Yemen, and that—the evidence has been collected by human rights organizations. And that doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon. There have been ongoing calls, both in the U.S. and the U.K., for suspensions of weapon sales. There was a partial suspension of precision-guided weapons in the U.S. a year ago, but that has since been lifted, and they are now selling precision-guided weapons back to the Saudis again. So, there are no indications that either government, the U.S. or the U.K., is going to change that policy anytime soon.

But it is a point of leverage, and they could use that in order to push for dialogue in this war. But it’s not being used, and, obviously, the consequences of that are devastating for Yemenis.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does the Trump family gain by this very close relationship with Saudi Arabia? Not to diminish the Obama administration and the number of times he went to Saudi Arabia and what he had done. But clearly, you know, the first foreign trip President Trump took was too Saudi Arabia. Jared Kushner has been there a number of times, his closeness with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. What do the Trumps gain?

IONA CRAIG: Again, this is a lot of—you know, based on financial interests and economic interests. And this is the really disheartening thing about it, because that’s at the expense of millions of Yemenis who are literally starving to death, that the interests of those people and the lives of those people is being—is being seen as inferior to the economic interests of the U.S. and the financial interests of the Trump administration.

So, yeah, it brings a lot of questions about just the moral compass, really, of societies and our governments, really, the U.S. and the U.K., in this, about the direction that this takes, because we are all now well aware of the humanitarian situation in Yemen right now and how many millions of people are suffering the situation of famine on the ground and the likely numbers of people who are going to starve to death, but yet our governments are still willing to hold very close relationships with Saudi Arabia and, for financial interests, maintain that relationship, at the cost of many hundreds of thousands of lives in Yemen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Iona Craig, before we conclude, could you say what you think the prospects are for a negotiated settlement? And what would be required for talks to resume?

IONA CRAIG: Unfortunately, I think, after the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the likelihood of dialogue or any end to the conflict has actually moved further away rather than closer. When Saleh had switched allegiances and shown his support for the Saudi-led coalition, that was a window of opportunity for the Saudi coalition to remove themselves from the conflict. And that window has now been closed. And there is no indication that the Houthis are going to take that up, that they have any interest in any kind of dialogue at the moment. And so, the war, unfortunately, it will ramble on.

Aid agencies, in the meanwhile, are at least calling for some kind of cessation of hostilities, just so that they can boost imports into the country, to bring in more aid and to also help commercial imports get into the country. But there’s no indication of that happening, as well. And so, any prospect of any kind of dialogue looks very, very remote at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig, we want to thank you for being with us, journalist who was based in Sana’a from 2010 to '15, Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. Her new piece, we'll link to, in The Guardian, headlined “Bombed into famine: How Saudi air campaign targets Yemen’s food supplies.”

And we—you can also go to Part 1 of our discussion with Iona Craig at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks for joining us.

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